Mapping the World, One Centimeter At a Time


From stone tablets to atlases, cartographic innovations have long been an underappreciated mainstay of geopolitics and everyday life. Along with wayfinding, the use of maps laid the groundwork for World War II. Propaganda maps were used to influence public opinion and mobilize troops. Instagrammers and TikTokers use them to navigate to the hottest restaurants. In its latest reincarnation, high-definition maps stand to change the future of navigation, logistics and spatial data collection.

In the foreground is a little-known Japanese startup – Dynamic Map Platform Co. or DMP stops. Backed by government-backed funds, the firm(1) has a multibillion-dollar mandate to support next-generation industries, and its shareholders include Toyota Motor Corp. considers large local conglomerates as well.

DMP creates and builds a collection of high-resolution and three-dimensional maps that are more accurate than the standards we know: the ones on iPhones, apps like Waze, and in-car navigation systems that use GPS. Its data can also be used for precision drone flights.

Data collection is key. Mobileye, owned by Intel Corp., relies on crowdsourced data from participating manufacturers’ cars (which they collect automatically and anonymously). The Japanese firm’s strategy allows for ownership and high precision. The information is accurate – distances and locations within centimeters. Other mapping systems guided by the World Geodetic System are approximate and rely mainly on sensors. It’s very annoying when Google Maps jumps into dense areas or sends you in all sorts of directions and doesn’t recognize turns.

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In addition, accessing data from others, such as car manufacturers, raises privacy and storage issues. Or those details of third parties become unavailable. Self-generated information is more secure.

Creating these maps is a big, technological undertaking. Precise locations are determined using the global navigation satellite system, or GNSS. Then, vehicles equipped with sensors and cameras collect and generate point-cloud data—or a group of points, each with a set of Cartesian coordinates (think X-axis and Y-axis). The mapping system ties it all together and integrates the data. It picks up everything, including painted signs on roads, buildings, curbs, lane junctions and curbs, before drivers even get there.

It may seem like a lot of deep technology and a lot of redundant information, but mapping and data collection are increasingly at the heart of navigation and safety technology. At the Consumer Electronics Show, one of the biggest tech events on the calendar, software-centric vehicles and autonomous driving systems were all the rage. They created a boom in automotive technology and smart cars. These maps are integrated into drones, windshields and cockpits and conveniently guide passengers to their destinations. China’s rapidly expanding market for such vehicles is expected to reach 960 billion yuan ($141 billion) by 2025. A team at the Radionavigation Laboratory at the University of Texas in the US is using signals from Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starlink satellite. GPS, a navigation technology free from the geopolitics of Russia, China and Europe.

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High resolution and accurate maps will eventually allow people to visually dive into a distant place. Increasingly, analysts and academics are using satellite images and other geo-location data to see what is happening thousands of miles away. Hedge funds also use it to track activity in factories and warehouses. In recent months, open-source intelligence has helped track troop movements in Ukraine. 3D mapping systems like DMP will eventually allow logistics firms to use 3D building and street maps to deliver packages through windows and navigate warehouses as society ages. It will also allow electric vehicles to be more efficient with accurate information about gradients, lanes and chargers. Today’s cartography is more powerful than it was decades ago.

So far, DMP has data on more than 30,000 kilometers (18,641 mi) of highways and motorways in Japan, about 640,000 kilometers in the United States, and more than 300,000 kilometers in Europe. In 2018, it acquired Ushr Inc., which counted GM Ventures and EnerTech Capital as investors at the time. Together, the two firms supported the expansion of high-definition coverage in North America with $100 million and JOIN, one of the Japanese government funds. Meanwhile, last year, DMP and JOIN put about $90 million into expanding beyond North America and Japan. It has already signed up automakers and hopes to become a go-to tool for logistics and infrastructure providers. General Motors Co.’s Cadillac models, including the CT6, XT6 and Hummer, known for its semi-autonomous systems, installed these maps.

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Maps are critical as geopolitical tensions ease, mobility innovations accelerate, and people travel more. Crucially, data accuracy – and increasingly its ownership – will be essential and will underpin future cartographic developments.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• US can defend Taiwan from China – at great cost: Tobin Harshaw

• Afraid of Driverless Cars? The Answer Is China: Anjani Trivedi

• Tesla Can Take Itself Out of the Run: Gary Smith

(1) Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corporation for Transport and Urban Development or JOIN and Innovation Network Corporation of Japan or INCJ

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. It covers industries including policies and firms in the engineering, automotive, electric vehicle and battery sectors in the Asia Pacific region. Previously, he was a columnist for the Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street and the paper’s finance and markets reporter. Before that, he was an investment banker in New York and London

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